Mr. Dennett,

I read your book Breaking the Spell with great interest.  The experience engendered several significant reactions, ones I wish to share with you below.  Making the effort assumes that you—like any writer that takes on such serious subjects—will appreciate a sincere and thoughtful response.  Hopefully that is what you will encounter in this letter.

You invite such a response in your challenge on page 312:

…I would like nothing better than for this book to provoke a challenge—a reasoned and evidence-rich scientific challenge—from researchers with opposing viewpoints.

If you replace the word ‘researchers’ with something like ‘autonomous intellectuals’ then I might qualify, given my opposing viewpoint.

You make clear early on what means to be broken, when you write on page 17:

The religious, in contrast [to atheists], often bristle at the impertinence [of objective examination], the lack of respect, the sacrilege, implied by anybody who wants to investigate their views.  I respectfully demur: there is indeed an ancient tradition to which they are appealing here, but it is mistaken and should not be permitted to continue.  This spell must be broken, and broken now.

In order to justify your call to break this religious spell, you assert that the stakes are the highest, that human civilization stands at risk from rampant ‘religious mania’ (page 72):

Now that we have created the technologies to cause global catastrophe, our jeopardy is multiplied to the maximum: a toxic religious mania could end human civilization overnight.  We need to understand what makes religions work, so we can protect ourselves in an informed manner from the circumstances in which religions go haywire.  What is religion composed of?  How do the parts fit together?  How do they mesh?  Which effects depend on which causes?  Which features, if any, invariably occur together?  Which exclude each other?  What constitutes the health and pathology of religious phenomena?

You repeat this dramatic assertion on p. 310:

The current situation is scary—one religious fanaticism or another could produce a global catastrophe, after all—but we should resist rash “remedies” and other overreactions. 

You never explain the source of this pending global disaster.  How could religion, or anyone acting in behalf of a religion, instigate a ‘global catastrophe’?  What form might that take?

Humans face two mega-threats to their lives and civilization: natural disaster (comet hitting the earth, say, or the eruption of a super volcano like the one in Yellowstone) or global war among powerful nation states.  Neither of these are likely to be caused by true believers.  It is the nation state that poses the greatest human threat to other humans, not religion:

The [nation] state had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivalled waster.  It had also proved itself the greatest killer of all time.  By the 1990s, state action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural deaths of some 125 million people during the century, more perhaps than it had succeeded in destroying during the whole of human history up to 1900.  Its inhuman malevolence had more than kept pace with its growing size and expanding means.  [Paul Johnson, Modern Times]

Elsewhere you presume to reveal reasons to question the tradition of faith (p. 312):

My task was to demonstrate that there was enough reason to question the tradition of faith so that you could not in good conscience turn your back on the available or discoverable relevant facts.   

There is nothing new in what you present.  Traditional religious faith has been rigorously questioned and challenged for tens of decades.  Along with the advancement of scientific discovery (Darwin being a prime example) thinkers from Nietzsche in the 19th century to Walter Kaufmann in the 20th have provided all the rational, scientific and/or philosophical material needed to dismember anyone’s faith, should they be so inclined.  That being the case, explicitly targeting a religious audience with intent to persuade seems fruitless.  The faithful don’t speak the same language as science, or share enough context to convince one way or another.  True believers might be those thoroughly inculcated in their faith, insulating them from rational consideration, or Christians that have taken a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, deliberately setting aside any empirical justification for their religious beliefs.  As such, the arguments made in the book are sure to fall on deaf ears, or not be read at all.

On page 6 you write:

…at what religion is today, why [religion] means so much to so many people, and what they might be right and wrong about in their understanding as religious people

You go on to link religious belief with communism, drug addiction, prohibition, racial segregation, and Apartheid, as if it is something that can be cured, or corrected.  You presume to tell religious people what is right and wrong in their faith.  In doing so, you assume universal truth exists, and that you have access to it.  But it doesn’t, and you don’t.  Every truth requires a specific context and particular perspective.  In your case, you are addressing a holy wall that neither philosophy nor science can penetrate, with theology residing untouched on the far side.  There is very little shared context between the two sides, keeping them ever apart.  You elaborate on page 13:

The problem is that there are good spells and then there are bad spells….If only we could figure out some way today to break the spell that lures thousands of poor young Muslim boys into fanatical madrassahs where they are prepared for a life of murderous martyrdom instead of being taught about the modern world, about democracy and history and science!

But why do some Muslim boys turn towards violence?  Can it be American military intervention in their countries?  Consider America’s violent invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.  You may recall that the Soviet Union invaded that country in 1979, and withdrew ten years later.  In their absence, a civil war between the Soviet client state and the Taliban ensued, ending four years later in victory for the Taliban.  When the Taliban gained power, they created a traditional Moslem society, where women were treated as little more than house slaves.  Female teachers were sent home, and girls removed from school, leaving an entire generation laregely uneducated.  On the other hand, the drug trade and drug users were brutally repressed, eliminating recreational drug use from their society. 

After 9/11, the US invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to destroy Al Quada, and capture Osama bin Laden, driving them out of the country and underground.  Subsequent to destroying Al Qaeda, the US waged war against the Taliban, and that war continues to this day.  The longest war in US history.  Our violent, and arrogant efforts to teach Afghanis about ‘the modern world, about democracy and history and science,’ have largely failed, and will continue to fail, until the US finally leaves the country in much the same way, and for many of the same reasons, they finally left Vietnam.  There is nothing there to win.

And like Vietnam, there is no justification for the war, and there never was.  Taliban values, beliefs and lifestyles are dramatically different from ours.  Yet they offer no threat to America, American men and women, or to American values.  There were no Afghanis on the planes that attacked the US – only Saudi’s and Yemeni’s (and for some reason that doesn’t shake our commitment to Saudi Arabia).  The Taliban kills Americans that invaded their country for the same reason I would kill the Taliban if they invaded mine.  As for harboring terrorists (the only justification I could find for the continuation of the war) we don’t wage war against other nations that harbor terrorists, most notably Pakistan (where we extracted Osama bin Laden less than two miles from that country’s secret police headquarters).  We don’t we invade and occupy other countries that harbor terrorists?  Why Afghanistan?

In the meantime, such violent incursions into Islamic countries (Afghanistan, Iraq and most recently, Syria), with explicit efforts to impose hated Western values, will continue to spawn violent reactions. 

As for those values (the modern world, democracy, history and science) many educated humans across the globe reject them out of hand.  Just today I watched an Amish family in a covered wagon trot their horses down the main street of my town.  They have full knowledge of modernity and choose to live radically simple lives.  Would you violently impose technical civilization upon them?

And you mention democracy, as if it is somehow sacred, when in fact it is deeply flawed, and unworthy of violent proselytizing.  From Hayek’s Road to Serfdom:

We have no intention, however, of making a fetish of democracy.  It may well be true that our generation talks and thinks too much of democracy and too little of the values which it serves.  It cannot be said of democracy, as Lord Acton truly said of liberty, that it “is not a means to a higher political end.  It is itself the highest political end.  It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for the security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.”  Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom.  As such it is by no means infallible or certain.  Nor must we forget that there has often been much more cultural and spiritual freedom under an autocratic rule than under some democracies—and it is at least conceivable that under the government of a very homogeneous and doctrinaire majority democratic government might be as oppressive as the worst dictatorship.

“…internal peace and individual freedom.”    Those are social values worth advocating.  As Hayek makes clear, any form of political structure should serve such values, something democracy consistently fails to do.

Democratic institutions based on majority rule are ruining this country, the recent presidential election a startling example.  The continuing socialization of the economy and the shrinking realm of personal liberty are just two of the major trends driven by a political system underwritten by destructive democratic principles. 

Before delving into the heart of the matter, let’s consider the most ‘shocking implication’ of your inquiry from page 295-296: 

This is perhaps the most shocking implication of my inquiry, and I do not shrink from it, even though it may offend many who think of themselves as deeply moral.  It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one’s own religion without question, because—to put it simply—it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority).  I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God, or because the Bible says so, or because “that is what all Muslims [Hindus, Sikhs…] believe,” should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing.   [all brackets, ellipses, in original]

In the vast majority of cases, true believers rely on accepted authority, believe the truth as revealed by prophets and sacred texts, and consider themselves completely unqualified to debate the finer points of their faith.  And in most of those cases, they don’t feel compelled to do so.  That’s what sets ‘faith’ apart from science.  Unlike scientists, true believers don’t require empirical proof or rational explanation.  As for the ‘rest of us’ taking their views ‘seriously, they generally don’t give a hoot.  As far as they are concerned, we are the ones missing the point, and likely going to hell anyway.

This leads us directly to your call to reason, and your challenge to join the discussion in a rational manner on page 296:

This is supposed to be a consideration of reasons, and I have not given you a reason that I in good faith could expect you to appreciate.  Suppose you believe that stem-cell research is wrong because that is what God has told you.  Even if you are right—that is, even if God does indeed exist and has, personally, told you that stem-cell research is wrong—you cannot reasonably expect others who do not share your faith or experience to accept this as a reason.  You are being unreasonable in taking your stand.  The fact that your faith is so strong that you cannot do otherwise just shows (if you really can’t) that you are disabled for moral persuasion, a sort of robotic slave to a meme that you are unable to evaluate.   

As we already mentioned, faith is not based on reason, so any reasonable challenge will continue to fall on religiously deaf ears.  Yet you insist on page 298:

…it is surely possible for people to believe in all innocence that their love of God absolves them from the responsibility to figure out reasons for these hard-to-fathom commands from their beloved God…There is only one way to respect the substance of any purported God-given moral edict: consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command.  No God that was pleased by displays of unreasoning love would be worthy of worship.

Those that truly believe in God don’t require your respect, or need to submit their belief to empirical standards.  Ironically, your assertion in the final sentence is entirely theological, one that could only be properly debated among religious experts.

Within the context of this discussion, there are two positions that lie beyond debate:

  • consensus as to what is most important to humans doesn’t exist.  Individuals believe in radically different—and mutually exclusive—certainties.  This pertains to every culture, within every age. 

  • humans (in total) do not know everything there is to know.  Science has demonstrated this again and again.  What humans once believed with certainty is no longer true.  The earth is not flat, nor does it reside at the center of the universe; humans are not anatomically special, but are closely related to chimpanzees and have evolved like every other living thing; the land is not fixed, but moves across the globe.

Consider a specific example of the limitations—despite your expressed certainty—of the theory of evolution.  Even here, on your home turf, you advocate an untenable position, or at best, one that is scientifically incomplete.  In your digression beginning on page 60, you attack those who question the validity of evolution.  You dismiss certain classes of critics with the following on page 61:

What about the Scientific Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents who are so vocal and visible in well-publicized campaigns?  They have all been carefully and patiently rebutted by conscientious scientists who have taken the trouble to penetrate their smoke screens of propaganda and expose both their shoddy arguments and their apparently deliberate misrepresentations and evasions?

The fact of evolution lies beyond rational doubt: plants and animals that are alive today are clearly descended from plants and animals that lived in the past; many of those distant relatives differ from those currently extant, indicating that evolution has taken place.

It also seems noncontroversial that natural selection and sexual selection contribute to the evolutionary process.  What remains problematic, however, and what hasn’t been fully explained by science, is a source of variation that would lead to all of the changes and complex structures that we see in modern animals.  The current options seem limited to recombination, mutation and genetic drift.  Are these processes adequate to drive speciation?

What are the limits of current evolutionary science?  We can agree that evolution takes place, and we can agree that natural processes are entirely responsible, ones that are in principle fully explainable by science; what we don’t agree upon is the degree to which science can currently explain those processes.  Lacking a complete and demonstrable explanation for speciation opens the door for new scientific discoveries, ones that may lead to paradigm-shifting perspectives.

While creationist can be safely ignored (from a scientific perspective) those who advocate intelligent design are under the same requirements of Neo-Darwinists: they need to offer some form of definitive demonstration of what entity/force/phenomenon is responsible for specific designs.  As it stands, they point to irreducible complexity and posit a designer without scientific evidence or proof that such a designer exists.

Asserting that intelligent design exists isn’t a proper scientific position because it’s not falsifiable.  Intelligent design doesn’t exist is falsifiable, placing the burden on its adherents to falsify it by scientifically demonstrating the existence of a creative entity, process or force.  Creationists face the same challenge: God doesn’t exist would be the proper scientific position until something equating to a theological definition of ‘God’ was shown to be manifest.

You summarize what you mean by evolution on page 120:

Mutation in DNA almost never happens—not once in a trillion copyings—but evolution depends on it.  Take the set of infrequent accidents—things that almost never happen—and sort them into the happy accidents, the neutral accidents, and the fatal accidents; amplify the effects of the happy accidents—which happens automatically when you have replication and competition—and you get evolution.

Given the dependence of evolution on occasional mutations, mainstream evolutionary scientists could demonstrate a case of evolution by taking a model genotype and demonstrate how singular changes to that genotype could lead to changes in a phenotype that are demonstrably better than the original, even if the improvement was minor, and therefore selected.  This might validate the notion that discrete mutations can drive evolutionary change.  Does such a model exist?

Another way to demonstrate a real case of evolution would be to provide extended examples of how complex structure (cilia, the mammalian eye, the amniotic egg, a bird feather, blood clotting, etc.) could evolve one altered gene at a time, with each change an improvement in overall fitness.  This assuming that random mutation would be the source of such change.  Do such examples exist?

Or do complex structures require multiple genetic changes at any given point?  And if so, how do these multiple – and coordinated – changes in the genotype take place?

Do scientists understand the unbroken causal link between the genetic code and the development of specific features?  Sure, we know in many cases what genes affect what part of an organism’s development, but do we know each step in an unbroken causal chain?  For instance, how does my genetic code that begins in a fused sperm and egg lead step by step to ultimately drive my sexual behavior?  Isn’t there just a big black box between the genetic code and such things that we simply label ‘FM’?  (‘Fucking Magic’) 

For example (among thousands that could be cited): in pit vipers, the venom is delivered from the venom sack through hollow fangs and into the victim.  The evolution of venom seems fairly straightforward, and of course teeth can evolve into different forms, including fangs.  But how does the delivery system that includes long, hollow fangs, special muscles in the snake’s head that contracts during a strike (forcing the venom through the fangs), and the actual channel the venom passes through, evolve, one step at a time?   Why would a tooth become hollow, like a hypodermic needle, absent venom?  Or how would a regular tooth, prior, say, to selection for ever longer fangs, be able to inject venom?  And how would the source of venom ever get connected via specialized tubes that lead to the hollow fang?

Do scientists know how life began, or where?  Lots of speculation and several theories, but anything definitive?  Again, I am utterly confidant that the genesis of life is a completely natural phenomenon, and in principle explainable by science.  But has it been?

Have scientists ever created biological life from non-life?  Not AI, or some sort of robot, but an actual living biological being that lives, grows, consumes and reproduces?  And not cloning, or beginning with some existing life form, but instead, from molecular raw materials?  Doing so might provide important clues to the origin of biological life.

In contrast to the current state of biology and bio-chemistry, I can explain every system in a pre-1970 automobile, how everything inter-relates, how the thing moves from one place to another.  With a bit of research, I could expound upon the origin of the automobile, and its current use, from an economic, cultural, historical or anthropological perspective.  When a car quits running, there is always a reason, one that can generally be fixed.  No mysteries, in other words.  The complete and unbroken causal links from pushing down on the throttle to increase the gas/air mixture drawn from the carburetor through the intake manifold and into the firing chamber; intake valve closing (driven by push rods and the cam shaft) and the piston compressing the mixture until the spark plug ignites the mixture in a small explosion (the spark plug connected to wires emanating from the distributor that send the charge when the rotor touches that wire) driving the piston down, contributing to the circular motion of the crankshaft; the crankshaft with one side of a pressure plate of the clutch that drives the transmission when the plates contact each other, providing the circular motion to the drive shaft and into the differential, turning the motion laterally with a fixed gear ratio to the axle that spins the wheel.  And the car moves….

Can the same thing be said about a living cell?  Do scientists understand all of the processes and how they relate?  For instance, what triggers the creation of energy within the mitochondria, and how does the cell ‘know’ how and when to engage those bio-chemical reactions?  Within the three dimensional space of a living cell, how do the necessary molecules (proteins, amino acids, carbon, sugars, etc.) physically get from where they are to where they are needed?  What controls all of these highly complex processes and reactions?  At the macro level, we understand how blood flows and nerves interact with muscle tissue, but do we possess the same level of understanding at the cellular level?

If the explanation is purely bio-chemical, why can’t scientists simply place the right combination of molecules in the correct portions and configurations to replicate the complete life processes within a cell?  Or have they?

Do scientists understand how any part of a genotype translates the coded DNA into an actual organ, limb or instinct?  In even one case?

If these are indeed examples of the current boundaries of science, then we won’t find it surprising that the actual process of speciation remains a scientific mystery.

It seems to me (and this could simply be a symptom of my ignorance of the current state of evolutionary science, although I have read this justification before) that given the rationally certain fact that evolution has taken place, and given the current scientific options for explanation (Neo-Darwinism), scientists conclude that every observed instance of evolution must be a product of that theory, because none other exist.  There is only one scientific theory to explain evolution, and that is Neo-Darwinism.  But as Karl Popper once asserted, this is not a scientifically proper position to take: asserting that evolution is driven entirely by natural selection is unscientific, because it cannot be falsified.  More specifically, the claim that ‘complex organic structures cannot evolve one genetic mutation at a time’ is a proper scientific hypothesis because it can be falsified by demonstrating a case where this has been proven to take place. 

The unwillingness of the scientific community to acknowledge this basic ignorance negatively impacts their credibility, undermining their case against those who favor theological explanations.  The simple fact is, humans don’t know how life began, or how evolution takes place.  In other words, evolution has yet to be explained, so dogmatically asserting that it has is incorrect.  Just as incorrect as the religious doctrines you criticize. 

Consider another example: plate tectonics.  The fact that the continents move—a notion that would have provoked ridicule in the scientific community not too many decades ago—now stands beyond rational doubt.  But unlike evolution (another element of nature beyond rational doubt), the specific cause of moving plates is less problematic.  No doubt the spinning of the earth, the gravitational affect of the sun and the moon, along with the semi-viscous nature of the mantle contribute in some un-mysterious way to drive plates one direction or another.  Determining the precise nature of these geological phenomena is unlikely to open entirely new realms of scientific interest. 

Every scientific theory is provisional, or at best, incomplete; every fact embedded within a larger, and largely unknown, construct.  Resolving remaining mysteries (how life originated say, or how organisms actually evolve) may lead to discoveries that completely alter existing paradigms, if not eliminate them altogether.  The history of science is full of such discoveries: consider the impact of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin or Einstein. 

On the one hand, with evolution (or the related question: the origin of biological life), we may discover that biological life routinely emerges from the physical/chemical substrate of the universe, and will be found on any suitable planet in the universe, and once established, evolve into more complex forms in the same predictable fashion as planets orbit a sun.  In other words, it’s just a matter of assembling the necessary detail with little else to discover.

Alternatively, it could be that life is actually quite rare, and only emerges under very special circumstances.  Along those lines, the evolution of very complex beings like humans might be extremely rare, perhaps even unique.  Support for this alternative can be found in ‘Rare Earth’ studies.  In the late seventies I developed the notion that a large body collided with earth, resulting in the creation of the moon.  This idea has now been largely accepted in the scientific community (no thanks to me – I was just a clever undergraduate that simply put some planetary pieces together).  What has yet to be accepted (although I have made my case to a suitable authority) is that the source of plate tectonics originated from that same collision.  This is key, because moving plates are responsible for the oceans and the atmosphere, aspects of earth that may be very rare, and conditions absolutely necessary for the evolution of life as we know it.

In the latter example, determining how life originated and how it evolves may lead to entirely new continents of scientific inquiry and discovery.  For instance, perhaps we learn that the additional dimensions that some physicists believe may exist (as many as eleven) bear directly on these questions.  Or we discover previously unknown (all natural) processes, forces or entities that bear directly on life, its origin and perpetuation.  Perhaps a process that renders wholesale changes to a genotype, offering the possibility of more sophisticated changes than brought about by occasional singular mutations, ones that offer only limited changes to the phenotype.  Not necessarily saltational change, but perhaps something less dramatic, yet more refined.

In summary, we are rationally certain that the continents moved in the past, and continue to move today.  We are rationally certain that evolution took place in the past, and continues today.  In contrast, we are not rationally certain that Neo-Darwinism (changes through natural/sexual selection working on variation created by recombination and occasional mutation) fully explains evolution.  If the scientific community continues to insist that evolution has been fully explained and that little else relevant can be discovered, the motivation and the money towards such research may remain inadequate.  This would risk leaving the two most important scientific questions (in my opinion) perpetually unanswered. 

Making such a broad and sustained critique of your book, given your academic credentials and my lack of them, may seem bold and perhaps gratuitous, but you instill my confidence to do so in many places.  For example, at one point you pose the question of sexual reproduction: why does it take place, given the significant cost?  You suggest one possible answer concerning parasites.  On page 61:

If she gave birth to a clone, her parasites would leap to it and find themselves at home from the outset.

Whereas offspring with only half the mother’s DNA would presumably be more resistant to the parasites that have grown accustom to their current biological environment.  I find this explanation odd given that sexual reproduction has been present for hundreds of millions of years, long before mammals came into existence, so such an explanation appears extraneous.  In addition, sexual reproduction is essential within a species in order to adapt to changing conditions.  Given the variation that occurs during sexual reproduction, any given population will host a range of characteristics, some of which may prove vital during changes in the environment, food sources, or new threats.  This benefit, one that has likely existed since the Cambrian Explosion (perhaps the source of that unique event), surely accounts for the cost.

In many respects, the science in Breaking the Spell seems largely redundant.  The evolutionary aspects of human behavior is old news, and has been accepted for several decades.  Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape was published in 1967, and while the details may be suspect, he was on the right track.  I actually favor Elaine Morgan’s work and her advocacy of Alistair Hardy’s Aquatic Ape.  In my view, her explanation of human evolution is the only plausible one that explains the difference between humans and their closest living relative, chimpanzees.  Her theory can be supported on multiple fronts, including: upright posture, subcutaneous fat, relative hairlessness, development of language and the instinctual ability to swim:



Throw a chimp in deep water and it sinks and drowns; they can’t hold their breath because they can’t control their breathing.  The physiological differences between chimps and humans in the throat and larynx provide the ability of humans to consciously control breathing.  Controlled breathing is necessary to dive beneath the surface, and leads directly to voice; voice leads directly to language.

In a word, humans are semi-aquatic apes.  Consider the following two images:






Robert Wright provides a more sophisticated look at the evolutionary impact on humans in 1994 in The Moral Animal.  He provides compelling arguments related to the pursuit of wealth and social esteem, providing an evolutionary explanation for these underlying drives.

As for religion, Edward O. Wilson addresses this specifically in his 1978 book On Human Nature.  The opening sentence of his chapter on the subject reads:

The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.

There is no question that religion emerges from human evolutionary history.  Humans instinctively want to know how the world works.  Given their large-brain dependence/advantage, it’s imperative that individual humans develop a working model of their environment so they can find food, survive from enemies, mate and raise offspring.  They also strive to understand the meaning of life and what really matters.  Traditionally, some form of religion or superstition provided many of the answers they sought.  In recent centuries, a more rational approach (largely in the form of science) has superseded the theological regarding how the world works (we no longer need god to explain the rain, for instance).  Human instinctive curiosity drives scientific discovery, along with every young person’s interest in exploring the world.

The rational mind is limited, however, when it comes to the fundamental: what is the meaning of life?  What is my purpose?  What is right and what is wrong?  What really matters?  Science has no answers for these questions, and in principle, never will.  This leaves serious instinctive human needs uncared for, leading directly to organized religion.

How instinctive human drives created religion seems fairly uncontroversial.  Consider my version below (excerpted from Orphans of this Wasted Vale).  The encounter takes place between two thirteen-year-old boys in 1971:

As they make it from Jack’s house to Dorchester, Jack says, “This guy gets sick and goes to the Witch Doctor to get better—”
     “Is this a story?” Don asks. 
     “You never tell stories,” Don asserts.  “Does this one have whales?”
     Jack laughs.  “No, no whales.”
     “Okay, so this guy goes to a Witch Doctor…and?”
     “Well, he’s sick, see?  A terrible pain in his stomach.  The Witch Doctor hears him out, listens to his stomach, and then declares that he is inhabited by a demon, one that will kill him if it’s not frightened away.  He says to his apprentice, ‘Get the magic body paint,’ and the boy runs off, and returns with three half-coconuts filled with colored goo.  The Witch Doctor begins to chant with wild eyes, then fingers the paint and tracks it across the sick guy’s belly, first one color, then the next, until the guy looks like he fainted in the middle of a kindergarten finger-painting-party.  After an hour of this, the guy farts real loud and stinky, sits up and says, ‘My stomach ache – it’s gone!’  ‘Yes,’ the Witch Doctor says, ‘the demon has fled.  Now give me a live goat and go.’  The man does so gratefully, and after the apprentice ties up the Witch Doctor’s dinner, a woman comes into hut and cries, ‘My baby is sick!  Please help him!’  She lays the child on the table at the Witch Doctor’s direction, and again, he examines the baby, listens to its stomach, touches the hot forehead, and then orders his apprentice to ‘bring me the magic beads’.  The apprentice runs off and returns in a second with three separate strands, all different.  One has shiny little stones; another sharp seashells; and a third, some kind of dried bean.  The Witch Doctor lays the beads in a special pattern across the small body, all the while chanting and raising his eyes to the sky, imploring the gods.  This goes on for hours, and the poor baby gets worse and the mother frantic.  Finally, the little thing passes away, and the Witch Doctor says to the mother, ‘You have offended the gods; I pleaded with them, offered them sacrifice, but they insisted your sins too great to forgive.  I’m sorry, I did everything possible, but they demand justice with no provision for charity.  You owe me two chickens.’”
     “That’s wicked!” Don says.  “Where did you hear that story?”
     “Nowhere,” Jack says.  “Just made it up.  But it’s not over.”
     They walk past a broken fence, one mended with odd discolored boards and they share a quick laugh.
     “Does she give him the chickens?” Don asks.
     “Yes.  But after the woman leaves with her dead baby, the Witch Doctor calls the apprentice to his side.  ‘How long have you been under my training?’ the Witch Doctor asks his youthful apprentice.  ‘Seven years, master.’  ‘And what have you learned in those seven years?’ he asks.  ‘How to arrange your beads and mix your paint,’ the boy answers.  ‘Nothing else?’ the Witch Doctor presses.  The boy struggles to answer, because he truly doesn’t know anything else.  The Witch Doctor sighs.  ‘I am old and tired,’ he says.  ‘It is time you learn my secrets.’  Now the boy is excited, for this is the day he has dreamed of.  He will finally learn how to heal the sick, forecast the rain, commune with the gods, and ward off evil spirits.  ‘When someone is sick, what do I do?’ the Witch Doctor asks.  ‘Sometimes you use magic paint, other times the beads.’  ‘And you think that makes a difference?’ the Witch Doctor asks.  The apprentice looks confused.  ‘Of course.  What else would it be?’”
     Don and Jack have reached the edge of the large field and stand on the curb of Cashmere.  The wind blows their long hair in wild streams and Jack’s eyes tear in the breeze.  They wait until the traffic clears, then sprint across four empty lanes.  They stand before an open face of a tall dirt bank, one that needs to be specially scaled.  Once they reach the top, they saunter through Don’s torn up back yard.
     “So what is it?” Don asks.  “What is the Witch Doctor’s secret?”
     “You don’t know?” Jack says.  “Think about it.”
     “Okay,” Don agrees, shaking his head.  “Look, there’s the twins...”

                                      *     *      *

     “Okay,” Don says, interrupting his thoughts, “I have thought about it and don’t know what the Witch Doctor’s secret is.”
     It takes a moment for Jack to gather his thoughts, and shift his internal gaze from the girl to the Witch Doctor’s secret.  He nods, then says to his best friend, “The Witch Doctor explains to his apprentice, ‘Whenever anyone is sick, or needs the rain, or threatened by a wild animal, you always tell them they can be cured, or protected, or that they will get the rain they need if—and this is the big if—they appease the gods and earn their favor.’  The apprentice grows excited, because he thinks he understands.  ‘You beseech the gods and they listen to you,’ he says, ‘and they do your bidding.’  But he frowns.  ‘Sometimes.’  ‘But why,’ asks the Witch Doctor, ‘would the gods listen only sometimes?  Why not every time I call?’  ‘I don’t know,’ the apprentice replies, truly confused.  ‘Why?’  ‘Because,’ the Witch Doctor whispers, ‘the gods do not exist.’”
     “Of course,” Don exclaims, as they make their way up the street, “gods don’t exist.  What kind of secret is that?”
     “Well, let me finish,” Jack says.
     The boys sit together on the ledge in Don’s backyard, overlooking Cashmere.  “Please,” Don says, with a smile on his face, “continue.”
     “So the apprentice says, ‘What do you mean, the gods don’t exist?  How did you cure that man…’  ‘I have no idea,’ the Witch Doctor admits.  ‘He just got better.  Just like the baby didn’t.’  ‘So you don’t do anything?’ the Apprentice asks, visibly appalled.  The Witch Doctor shrugs.  ‘I give them hope,’ he says, ‘and sometimes that is enough.  And when it’s not, I give them comfort by assuring them that nothing else could be done, that they made their best effort, that their burnt crops or mauled livestock or early death is all part of a larger plan, that forces larger than themselves exists, and they should be thankful, no matter what happens.’  ‘So the secret is…’ the Apprentice tries to say, but is interrupted by the Witch Doctor, ‘is that there is no secret.’”
     “So,” Don says, “the secret is that there is no secret, is that it?”
     “It’s a little more complicated than that,” Jack says.  “It’s how something can be, and not be, at the same time.  It’s a secret by not being a secret – by not being anything at all.”
     Don kicks his feet and knocks some clods loose, sending them tumbling to the street. 

     “You know the really nasty part of this,” Jack says.
     “No, what’s that.”
     Jack looks at his friend.  “The gods actually do exist,” he says with all seriousness, “and boy are they pissed.”

In the beginning, shamans and witch doctors provided the people with meaning, answers, social cohesion, group identity and hope.  In turn, the people provided the shamans and witch doctors with wealth and esteem, fulfilling (pace Wright) their instinctive desires. 

This has long been understood.  In other words, any religious spells apt to be broken by scientific inquiry into human evolutionary behavior have long since been sundered.  You break no new ground.

Even if we accept the sociobiological basis for religious behavior (which I am completely willing to stipulate), and even if the religiously committed accept such a basis for their beliefs, they are unlikely to concede anything.  The same has been done for human sexual behavior, and despite my understanding of the sociobiological basis for my desires, I never hesitate to fulfill them, at every reasonable opportunity.  Same goes for hunger, or smiling, or playing competitive sports: reducing human drives to their evolutionary roots does little to change how we choose to live.  That being the case, you couldn’t break the religious spell with perfect scientific knowledge, let alone the fraction that we currently possess, as there is no rational, scientific or philosophical justification for holding religious beliefs in the first place.  As such, there is no rational, scientific or philosophical reason to abandon them.

Another weakness to your argument concerns your reductive materialism on page 302:

In its scientific or philosophical sense, [materialism] refers to a theory that aspires to explain all the phenomena without recourse to anything immaterial…

While it is likely that everything that exists can be reduced in some manner to the physical and chemical substrate, there are many significant and meaningful things that emerge that are completely immaterial.  For example, there is nothing material in the significance of a memory, or any number of important abstractions, including honor, truth, or victory.  More specifically, the meaning and value of a specific memory cannot be deduced from the bio-chemical processes that produce it.  In the same way, ‘imagination’ doesn’t exist in the material world in any identifiable way.  In the context of this discussion, ‘faith’ and ‘spirit’ reside in human minds and not the material world.  Yet they are just as ‘real’ as the ‘horizon’ or the ‘sky’ (two examples of natural things that don’t independently ‘exist’ in the material world).  A spoken work is immaterial as its effect cannot be deduced from the physical sound waves that it engenders.  And yet the material impact of a simple “no” can manifest genuine despair, even self destruction.  Or in a different context, wild jubilation.

You go on to define nihilism as “the belief in nothing…” (p. 202).  This is incorrect, or at best, misleading.  Given that this entire discussion hinges upon this important concept, we need to get it right.

I came to understand nihilism reading Nietzsche, although it wasn’t his discovery.  As far as I know, the earliest thinker in the modern era that realized that nothing meaningful exists within the natural world was Giambattista Vico in the 18th century.  While Vico advocated Christianity as the antidote to nihilism, Nietzsche turned to art (from The Will to Power):

For a philosopher to say, ― “the good and the beautiful are one,” is infamy; if he goes on to add, ― “also the true,” one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly.
     We possess art lest we perish from the truth.

In verse:

     Meaning only means to Man,
     Nature seems unimpressed.
     Much exists, the universe
     In truth?  It’s meaningless…

Or, to put it in pictures:

Eat, Survive, Reproduce  

                                        Eat, Survive, Reproduce

                                                                                  Eat, Survive, Reproduce    

                                                                                                                                            What’s it all about?

The nihilist understands that meaning, purpose, or significance of human life cannot be found or discovered by scientific inquiry, as such meaning, purpose or significance simply doesn’t exist outside or independent of a human mind (or spirit, or soul…).  Not understanding this leads to your questions about human craving for spirituality:

…I found one opinion expressed in slightly different ways by people across the spectrum of religious views: “man” has a “deep need” for ‘spirituality,” a need that is fulfilled for some by traditional organized religion, for others by New Age cults or movements or hobbies, and for still others by the intense pursuit of art or music, pottery or environmental activism—or football!  What fascinates me about this delightfully versatile craving for “spirituality” is that people think they know what they are talking about, even though—or perhaps because—nobody bothers to explain just what they mean.

People can’t explain this deep need for spirituality, or what they mean by spirituality, or agree with each other what form it might take, because what they seek doesn’t empirically exist.  The spirit manifests within a person without any material basis, and takes different forms in everybody.  That is why science, or any purely rational approach, will fail to account for (or counter) any specific spiritual belief.

For those who live in a complex, ancient and multifaceted religious world, your offer to replace it with your simple vision must seem like thin gruel indeed:

What these people have realized is one of the best secrets of life: let your self go.  If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.  Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.  That, I propose, is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.

“Keeping that awestruck vision” can’t really compete with the promise of paradise (Islam), or perpetual peace of mind (Taoism), or nirvana (Buddhism), or eternal salvation (Christianity).  Science cannot provide purpose, meaning or value to the spiritually starved, as it stands cold and worthless to the human soul.  

In other words, your effort to alter the genuinely religious is bound to fail, particularly given the weakness of your specific proposals:

So here is the only prescription I will make categorically and without reservation: Do more research.

As already stated, no amount of research will teach us more than we already know, or provide arguments that can possibly overcome the conviction of the faithful.  But you insist:

Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future.

What form might those policies take?  Restrict religious freedom?  Repress religious activities?  Forbid religions expression, symbols or clothing?  In what form, given American values, might we find any of this acceptable?

Here’s a proposal, then: as long as parents don’t teach their children anything that is likely to close their minds

     1.through fear or hatred or disabling them from inquiry (by denying them an education, for instance, or keeping them entirely isolated from the world)

then they may teach their children whatever religious doctrines they like.

How would this proposal be implemented?  What would it take to determine what parents taught their children, and how would anyone (private citizen or government entity) object in a particular case?  If we are talking about places outside the US, are you suggesting some kind of occupation, like Afghanistan, so that families could be forced to send their children to secular schools?  Because that is what it would take, in many parts of the world.

Our capacity to tolerate the toxic excesses of freedom cannot be assumed in others, or simply exported as one more commodity.  The practically unlimited educability of any human being gives us hope of success, but designing and implementing the cultural inoculations necessary to fend off disaster, while respecting the rights of those in need of inoculation, will be an urgent task of great complexity, requiring not just better social science but also sensitivity, imagination, and courage.  The field of public health expanded to include cultural health will be the greatest challenge of the next century.   

The more I read the previous excerpt, the more frightening it becomes.  “…toxic excesses of freedom…”?  “…practically unlimited educability of any human…”?  “…those in need of inoculation…”?  Shades of Orwell, specters of Gestapo and KGB, promises of mass re-education, and indefinite military occupation.  What a nightmare! 

Past a certain age, people cannot be forced to believe something different than what they do.  It takes an ever questing mind and an autonomous intellect, one dedicated to discovering the truth, (or as close to the truth as one is likely to get), to alter primary beliefs.  This becomes increasingly difficult the longer we live, and the harder our convictions crystalize.  To change, people need to be searching for the truth.  They can’t be simply told.  Or forced.  Making such an effort to alter primary beliefs in the well-educated, highly sophisticated elements of society is difficult; among the semi-literate or non-intellectual adult, practically impossible. 

We finally get to the heart of the matter in the following paragraph, when you quote Jessica Stern, “…an intrepid pioneer in this endeavor…” (referring to the previous paragraph), and she opens with:

A rigorous, statistically unbiased study of the root causes of terrorism at the level of individuals…

Thus tying together the broad notions of religion critiqued throughout this book with the very specific challenge of confronting terrorism.  This link becomes more explicit a few pages later (332) when you raise the specter of Hindu and Christian terrorism.  Except that terrorism is primarily a political issue, not one of religion, and the vast majority of true believers of every faith are utterly peaceful.  Elements of Islam (and only Islam) provide a social vehicle for terroristic self-destruction, but the overwhelming impetus for any particular terrorist act is political.  To use the best know example, consider Bin Laden’s justification for the attacks on 9/11 (from Wikipedia):

In Osama Bin Laden's November 2002 "Letter to America", he explicitly stated that al-Qaeda's motives for their attacks include: Western support for attacking Muslims in Somalia, supporting Russian atrocities against Muslims in Chechnya, supporting the Indian oppression against Muslims in Kashmir, the Jewish aggression against Muslims in Lebanon, the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, US support of Israel, and sanctions against Iraq.

In other words, purely political.  To curtail such events, you provide the following specific proposal:

…we should create alternative schools—for Muslim boys and girls—that will better serve their real and pressing needs, and let these schools compete openly with the madrassahs for clientele.

Who is “we”?  The occupying military regime?  And how will “…their real and pressing needs…” be determined?  And by whom?  Instead of attempting (and I emphasize the word attempt, given the utter futility of it) to dominate another nation and forcibly enact foreign values, culture and behaviors, perhaps a measure of respect and restraint would prove more effective in limiting, if not eliminating, terrorist attacks.  In any case, subverting traditional religious beliefs and practices, as suggested throughout this book, will likely have little, if any, practical effect on reducing acts of terror.  In fact, the forceful intrusion that is recommended will predictably have the opposite effect (as we have seen over the past several decades) and incite continuing violent acts against those foreign agents and their home nations that insist on meddling.

One final topic.  You make an interesting leap from religion to China:

Where are we going to find an overabundance of such young men [“young men who have learned enough about the world to see that their futures look otherwise bleak and uninspiring”] in the very near future?  In many countries, but especially in China, where the draconian one-child-per-family measures that have slowed the population explosion so dramatically (and turned China into a blooming economic force of unsettling magnitude) have had the side effect of creating a massive imbalance between male and female children.  Everybody wanted to have a son (a superannuated meme that had evolved to thrive in an earlier economic environment), so daughters have been aborted (or killed at birth) in huge numbers, so now there are not going to be anywhere near enough wives to go around.  What are all those young men going to do with themselves?  We have a few years to figure out benign channels into which their hormone-soaked energies can be directed.  

Seriously?  How does this pertain to anything that has gone before?  The imbalance of men and women in China has nothing to do with religion.  And what about the final sentence:  “We have a few years to figure out…”  Who is “we”?  And what “benign channels” are you contemplating, and how might such channels be forged?  How is this anything but a Chinese issue (in that it will be the Chinese that address it, or fail to).  Or are you suggesting someone outside China offer to solve the problem for them?

Overall, I question the purpose of the book, the relevance to the target audience, and the validity of the general claims and assertions made.  You frequently condescend to people of faith, and your arrogant tone flattens any positive effect you may have desired.  For instance (one of many I could quote) from page 296:

…your declarations of your deeply held views are posturings that are out of place, part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we others will just have to work around you as best we can.

In summary, I found your book intellectually distasteful and unconvincing:

  • Religion will not ignite a global catastrophe, as you suggest
  • True believers will not be convinced by scientific or rational arguments to abandon their faith
  • There is nothing scientifically new in identifying religious practices with evolutionary sources
  • Attempting to violently impose modern technology and democratic processes on other nations is unworthy of a principled nation
  • we know very few things for certain (evolution, in your case) and those are not so (pace Holmes)

Your book offers divisiveness and intolerance between peoples, and disrespects those who hold fundamentally different beliefs about the most important human questions.  Alternatively, I offer the following:

Do no evil.

Respect your neighbor (and everybody else).

Mind your own fucking business.

Peacefully coexist.


With regards,

Anthony Wheeler (AKA The Altruistic Libertarian)

Breaking the Spell Breakers

A critical response to Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell

Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.